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This post is brought to you by Command Line Heroes, an original podcast from Red Hat.
I think of computing today as being the convergence of at least three major threads that were once largely apart from each other. There were the proprietary hardware and software stacks: mainframes and their minicomputer counterparts. There was the proto-Internet and Unix, proprietary in their own way but leading to Linux and open source. And there was the personal computer.
I first programmed on one of those proprietary systems using BASIC encoded onto paper tape using a teletype connected to an HP system at the local community college. In college, I sent a few emails on the early Internet to a friend at another lab. I consumed the hundreds of pages of rec.arts.sf-lovers debate which someone had printed out in the wake of the big reveal at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. But, really, I got started with computers in earnest when I took an engineering job at an oil drilling company and encountered an Apple II for the first time. I wrote programs to simplify various aspects of my work and soon enough bought my own PC “clone” from a long-gone company called Corona.
A couple of aspects of this DOS era of the PC, both largely forgotten today, particularly influenced me and pretty much led me into tech.
The first was bulletin board services (BBS). While commercial services like Compuserve existed, long before most people had more than an inkling about the Internet, there were also a vast number of mostly small-time operations that ran message boards on PCs. They ranged from a single system in someone’s bedroom to subscription operations with maybe dozens of modems.
I belonged to a local subscription service--long distance phone calls were expensive!--and had my first introduction to a computer-mediated community. Jason Scott’s BBS: The Documentary (available on The Internet Archive) recounts this era using interviews with many of the people who ran BBSs, wrote the message board software, or were otherwise involved.
Around the same time, I also started doing a lot more programming as a hobby. And this would lead me into the shareware world.
Shareware, at least as the term was generally used at the time, meant try-before-you-buy software. Remember, this is a time (late eighties to early nineties) when open source was largely unknown outside of a few circles and boxed software sold at retail could go for hundreds of dollars with no guarantee it would even work properly on your computer.
The main software I wrote was a little DOS file manager, 35KB of assembler, called Directory Freedom, derived from some assembly code listings in PC Magazine and another developer’s work. It never made a huge amount of money but it had its fan base and I still get emails about it from time to time.
Like many of the BBS communities, shareware also had a community aspect. The Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP) was the shareware trade association, to use a term too grandiose for the reality. For many years, ASP members met online and at events to keep shareware pure, which meant free from nag screens, time bombs, and other forms of crippling. Open source never developed as an important part of the PC software culture in this era (for various reasons) but some user freedoms took other forms.
When I took my first job in tech though, it was back to the world of proprietary hardware and software as a product manager of the MV/7800 at Data General. Today, Data General is probably best remembered as the company at the center of Soul of a New Machine, still one of the best books about product development ever written.
I would eventually stay at Data General for about 13 years, until shortly after their acquisition by EMC. I managed most of Data General’s proprietary systems at one point or other over the years. However, my role there eventually would bring me into contact with Unix for the first time.
By the mid-nineties, Data General was transitioning away from its own proprietary operating system and processors. The detailed storyline gets a bit complicated but, suffice it to say, the back-end of my Data General sojourn consisted primarily of bringing to market a family of early Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA) servers running DG/UX.
I was mostly focused on the system hardware during this period but I did manage to grab a Unix workstation for myself. I think it’s fair to say that I found it pretty frustrating at first. But there were compensations. Like that cool NCSA Mosaic browser program. (As a side note, I still have a copy of O’Reilly’s 1992 The Whole Internet. Said book mentions the World Wide Web in one short chapter.)
Linux came a bit later. I’m not sure what distro I first installed. However, open source generally became an increasingly important part of my work, by then, as an IT industry analyst. During my tenure in that job, Linux and open source grew from being the backbone of the Internet to, increasingly, just the way that software is developed and used by default.
In 2009, I wrote in a research note that “Open source software has been both benefactor and beneficiary of the ‘Internet wave’ of computing during which large-scale, network-connected computing architectures built from relatively standardized hardware and software components have come into their own… Open source has fitted this evolution well. Linux itself came to be, in a sense, the unified Unix that had failed to be birthed through more conventional commercial partnerships. And Unix-style operating systems, historically closely tied to the rise of computer networks (including standards like TCP/IP that underpin the internet) were a great technical match for an increasingly network-centric style of computing. At the same time, those computer networks provided widespread connectivity that collaborative open source development needed to flourish.”
That’s all still true almost ten years later. The difference is that open source has become even more pervasive, more baked into so many of the services we build and use, and even further at the forefront of new technologies and new ecosystems.
Want to hear more stories about the OS?
Check out @rossturk's post on the Magic of Linux or @ThomasDCameron's post From police officer to Open Source devotee: One man’s story.